Experts talk negative effects of heat on East Texans’ mental health

Heat vs Mental Health: How an expert says extreme heat can cause stress, irritability
Published: Aug. 14, 2023 at 2:33 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 14, 2023 at 6:50 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Feeling a bit out of sorts in the hot weather? There may be a good reason for that.

The excessive heat causes disruptions to the neurotransmitters in the brain that are responsible for cognitive function, according to Dr. Sandra Petersen.

Dr. Petersen is the Program Coordinator for the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program at the University of Texas at Tyler who has examined the effects of heat on the mind throughout this summer.

“In my patient population and in discussing it with my students who are seeing patients in clinical, we’ve seen an uptick in a variety of things that I think we can legitimately attribute to mental health concerns regarding heat,” she says.

Licensed Professional Counselor Martha Carney says the heat causes discomfort which weakens the mind’s decision-making abilities and causes people to be more irritable.

“Any kind of stressor on the body is going to be a stressor for the mind,” she says.

Experts also recommend asking physicians or licensed experts about the potential harm of mixing extended time outdoors in the heat with certain medications.

“We might see for instance, with those who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, those people might worsen, and some of their symptomatology, it may exacerbate with symptoms that they haven’t seen in a long time simply because of the lack of thermoregulation that can be attributed to their medications,” Dr. Petersen says.

Children, the elderly, substance abusers and those with preexisting mental health conditions are most at risk to be affected by the heat when it comes to their neurotransmitters and body temperature adjusting to the 100-plus degree temperatures.

Her biggest recommendation: think ahead.

“Try to plan for cooler times of the day to accomplish important tasks, and then plan to be indoors when the heat index is at its maximum,” she says.

Part of the daily plan should also include hydration, and each person should drink a minimum of 62 ounces of water per day. Both Petersen and Carney stressed the importance of taking care of your mental well-being by developing new routines to stay active indoors or early in the morning when it is cooler.

Mental well-being is dependent on staying proactive in the extreme heat to limit exposure and speak with medical professionals about how to stay safe on an individual level.